WHOA! As a result of announcing to my friends and family that I have survived the Big C, I have received an email from a very dear, very lovely friend telling me I’m about to Find Religion (her caps). Thank God she was being ironic. But it set me thinking.
It took a long time to slough off my Catholicism, as a snake does its old, unwanted skin, and I’m not about to slide it back on again.
From a personal perspective, I, like my fellow generation of 50s/60s Catholic kids, was indoctrinated from birth in my faith. In my cot, before I could talk, I’d been taught how to make the sign of the cross. (I know this because I watched my younger siblings get taken through the same procedure.)
When I was much older, watching the evening news on TV, there might be scenes of some protest rally. It was Vietnam War time. Some women might have young children with them. Mum would say, “How awful, indoctrinating kiddies who aren’t old enough to understand.” Hello?
Then came adolescence. As if it weren’t enough to cope with being a closet queen, every time I had a wank I was condemned straight to Hell, mortal sin blotted my soul from the sight of God and if the bus was on target I was doomed for all eternity. Quick, get to confession – and start all over again. What a way to grow up. Nowadays we would call it child abuse, not self-abuse.
Despite this, I was a devout Catholic into my early 20s, thoroughly believing my God was the true God. It was as my homosexual urges grew stronger and mild experiments with girls were getting me nowhere, that I began to see there was no place for me in the church. But I still believed I was the one at fault. Gradually as I moved out of home and spent more time in gay bars, I stopped going to church and didn’t feel too bad about it.
By the time I got to England, aged 25, I was happily agnostic and religion had dropped out of my life – perhaps by a process of reverse osmosis.
Then one wonderful night I watched a debate on BBC TV on the existence of God. The opponents were Oxford philosopher Prof. A. J. (later Sir Albert) Ayer and a Jesuit bishop. The bishop kept starting with, “Let’s just suppose there is a God”. “No,” Ayer would reply, “you must prove to me that there is a God. I am under no obligation to prove otherwise.” Indeed, as we know, it is impossible to prove the non-existence of something. He wiped the floor with the bishop and I had my Road to Damascus moment – yet again in reverse, I guess.
This cathartic moment cleared all doubts from my mind. I became quite comfortable with my sexuality and my lack of religion and began to build some self-respect and personal confidence. I realised the world didn’t need a creator, no more that the creator needed a creator of his/her own. The years of Catholic guilt fell away like that snakeskin.
FOR today’s lesson I’d like to address the concept of the Sin of Arrogance…
Science tells us that there are more stars in the Universe than there are grains of sand on all the beaches of the world (or grains in the Sahara, if you prefer). Even the Vatican accepts this truth. Note, I said stars, not planets. The Sun is our star. In this analogy the Solar System is less than one grain of sand. The Earth, its third planet, is infinitesimal in size compared to the Sun.
The highest life form on Earth, we may assume, is Man (oops, Humankind – is that better?). Yet there are educated, otherwise intelligent grown-ups who sincerely believe that they have been created in God’s image (Arrogance alert) and that this Old Grey Guy in the Sky (OK, OK…) listens to the prayers and supplications of one individual and can answer and direct him/her to a better life.
Hey, this is one human being out of several billion, on this infinitesimal planet in a Solar System that is less than a grain of sand in the scheme of things. If this isn’t arrogance, what is? (For less intelligent beings this might understandably be sheer desperation, but I’m talking about the so-called brainy ones.)
CHILDREN open your catechisms at Question One.
Q. 1 Who made the world?
A. 1 God made the world.
Q. 2 Who is God?
A. 2 God is the Supreme Being, omnipotent and omniscient, who always was and always will be – eternal in being and infinite in wisdom. (Hey, I made all that up, but it’s not bad is it?)
Now hang on here. The Christians and Jews can’t believe in a Universe that has always existed –in one form or another – but a Supreme Being, that’s OK? It’s OK for one thing to have always existed, but not the other?
I’m looking out the window at solid forms in the universe – birds, trees, etc – and I accept that they exist. But I see no evidence of the existence our friend the S.B. (Some would say I’m looking at His/Her handiwork, but that’s something else altogether). Bring on the Tooth Fairy and the Easter Bunny. I can’t tell how the birds and trees came into being, so for an answer I turn to Science. The wonderful thing about scientists is that they never say, “This is a fact, this is true, this is what happened.” They come up with a theory, they test it, then they say, “We think this is the situation so far.” Think of Galileo, think of Newton, think of Einstein. Each of these geniuses took his field of science to a higher level, but scientists know there’s more where that came from, folks, and little-by-little we’re getting a clearer and better picture. Surely that’s Humility, not Arrogance. (Cue irony button here.)
ENOUGH of my preaching awready (yes, I’m confining my remarks to the Judeo/Christian faith, I don’t know much of the others).
To return to the personal, I don’t have to prove there is no God – you can’t prove a negative, reasoning teaches us. But I firmly believe there’s no God, no Heaven, no Hell, no afterlife. It’s up to someone else to prove otherwise to me.
(Digression here: religious friends talk of an afterlife in Heaven and most assume we’ll all meet up there. But if there’s a Heaven, there must be a Hell. If not, Hitler’s in Heaven, along with Mussolini, Stalin, your ex-husband and that guy in menswear who diddled my doodle when I was 13 years old – God (sic) forbid!)
So is it more arrogance to assume you’re on your way to Heaven? Will you arrive there Alzheimitic and crippled, as on the day you died, or mewling and puking at a much earlier age, or a little later, covered in pimples?
So are my convictions set in stone, like those of many I criticise? Do I have a closed mind? Absolutely not. Whilst I cannot respect the blind faith of others, I accept it. If you tell me you can’t do work on a Saturday, can’t eat certain unclean foods, or firmly believe that if you consume a wafer of bread and a glass of wine you are consuming the body and blood of Christ (touch of cannibalism there?) because of your religion, I think you are crazy, or at the best misinformed. Nevertheless, I am totally open to someone, some day, somewhere convincing me that God exists. Then I’ll believe.
But here’s what I call the Catholic Catch-22. Belief in a God, as I understand, requires an act of faith not dependant on concrete evidence – i.e., blind faith. If someone convinces me, I’ll have evidence which negates blind faith, destroying the very thing necessary for my belief in the first place.
I need a drink. You need a drink.
CODA: Just twenty years ago, the Berlin Wall came down – a thrilling event. A few weeks later, David Barenboim and the Berlin Philharmonic played a free concert to celebrate its fall, specifically for the East Berliners who had never heard their orchestra live, if at all. They played Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony, which just happens to be my favourite piece of classical music. I heard a recording of this performance recently on ABC Classic FM. I have two recordings of it already, but listening to this performance, I could feel excitement and enthusiasm coming out of my speakers. When they got to the final movement it felt as if Barenboim had said, “Right, fellers, every man for himself and I’ll meet you at the end.” I was almost in tears, sitting alone in my room, as Sally Bowles said.
And my point is? I do believe in the spirit – I see it in a garden of flowers, I see it in a great work of art, I hear it when Ella sings “Ev’ry Time We Say Goodbye”. I can be moved to tears, I can find myself lost in the universe. I can’t explain it and nor, so far, can science. Maybe they will one day – the brain is the great unexplored inner space – maybe they won’t. But it doesn’t need a God.
Here endeth the lesson.